Since the summer of 2013, we’ve lived in Berlin Germany. Today marks the end of that grand adventure as we head home to Virginia. As you read this, we are likely somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, on our way back. I know that for most the flight I’ll likely be reading or maybe writing something longhand. I never could sleep in moving vehicles.
But for weeks, before we left Germany, I thought about our grand adventure. I’m keenly aware that most Americans never get such an opportunity. So for this, I feel humbled and truly blessed. We spent three years exploring the European continent. Could we’ve seen more? Yeah, probably. But we still had school and jobs. I still have books to write and blogs to construct. For the moment, let me reflect on just what an adventure it has been.
When we started out on this journey, we had really one goal in mind, and that was to see Europe and expose the children to the rest of the world. I never wanted my kids to grow up to be the type of Americans who believe the world rises and sets on their hometown and there is nothing else. Some people never leave their own home county. I don’t blame them for that, but I wanted my kids to see the rest of the world. I’m happy to say, we accomplished that.
There is tremendous value in being in a country where you don’t speak the language and have to communicate. Sitting on a park bench and watching unusual customs pass you by is impossible to put a value on. We have done these things, and more.
I’m a little sad that it’s all coming to an end, but we are happy to be returning home. I think we are better for having made the trip out here. During this time, a lot has changed. I suspect we will be fundamentally different from our experiences out in Europe in ways that we still don’t comprehend. In spite of our troubles, I still think America is the greatest country on earth.
Here are some interesting facts.
We visited 14 sovereign nations; Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, France, Germany (of course), Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Poland, Rome, Spain, and Slovakia.
I would try to tell you how many cities we have visited, but that would be impossible. However, let me give you my top five.
Prague: If you ever have the chance to visit Prague, I’ll tell you to drop everything and go. It is a beautiful old East European city. Full of sights and sounds, there are lots of things to see and do. People have argued that it is becoming too commercialized and western, but it hasn’t lost its charm. Wander the streets and meet the people. They will be thrilled you made it out to their fair city. I highly recommend the Strahov Monastic Brewery. The food is excellent and the beer is the best I have had anywhere.
Warsaw: If you’re Polish, like me, you have to visit Warsaw. Yes, it is a dirty old big city, but there are wonderful museums to see everywhere. Check out the old Warsaw Palace. My kids loved it. Like Prague, it has tons of hidden gems to see. My personal favorite in Warsaw was the Polish Uprising Museum. If you ever want to feel pride in polish ancestry, that is the place to go. Don’t be surprised if every third person you meet has a relative living in Chicago. The Polish people are wonderful and really glad to see you.
Hamburg, Germany: I will forever have a soft spot for Hamburg. There is so much to see and do. If you like ships, I encourage you to take as many ship tours as you can. The dining is magnificent. You are getting into that Northern European cuisine in Hamburg so prepare for fish! Walking around the dock areas at night is brilliant and beautiful. I highly suggest visiting Hamburg if you have the chance.
Florence: It would probably be better to say I just loved Tuscany, but Florence was great fun. There are all kinds of museums to see. It’s just one of those places you can just wander the streets and enjoy being there. Take some time to hang out by the river and watch the water go by. I highly recommend the Da Vinci Museum. Wave to him … he’ll wave back. Seriously, they have a couple of his fingers on display!
Venice: I fell in love with Venice as we approached on the water taxi. Wandering the streets, bridges, and occasionally elevated paths (when it floods once a month) you will see life at its most grand. Every morning supplies are delivered by boat to stores and shops. Kids take boats to school like buses. The police even patrol the “streets” in boats. I could spend two weeks in Venice, doing nothing, and be perfectly content. Yes, the locals can come across as abrupt, almost rude to an American, but once you get settled in and talk with them, they are wonderful people. Show them you are interested in Venice as a city and they will talk your ear off. They are intensely proud to be who they are. The Doge’s Palace is an amazing place to tour.
Here’s a Venice good tip. Get off the main tourist drag and find a restaurant to walk into. As one guide told us, “If someone is standing outside a restaurant and asking you if you want to come in, then just don’t.” The food will be tourist crap. In Venice, it’s common to eat finger foods for dinner. You order small dishes to eat and a glass of wine. Totally worth it. Once you get the hang of the chaos at the counter, you’ll be just fine.
But remember, the world doesn’t bow to you because you’re an American
Many European’s love Americans. But, remember that you are visitors in their space. I know, all too well, what is meant by the “Ugly American”. America is, I believe, the greatest country on planet earth. But every European believes that their country is the best place on earth too. Americans are wonderful people. We should be wonderful enough to know how to behave in places where we are the guest. Act civil, and you will be treated with civility.
Europe has been a wonderful experience. There are lots of things going for it. It isn’t the quaint old world as it used to be, but it’s still worth checking out if you have the time.
It’s not all roses.
I fear there may be some rough times ahead for Europe, as it struggles with its own internal issues. Several of the countries in the EU are questioning the utility and practicality of the construct as old questions of sovereignty, and maybe some old wounds, are being re-opened. The Euro has some issues it has to deal with, particularly how much money the partner states are willing to fork out to save struggling economies. Immigration issues pervade and it’s a common topic on the street as I write this. These issues are, in my opinion, not insurmountable. In the end, the best idea could be to just dissolve the EU, but keep the good aspects of it. But, I’m not a politician. I wish all of Europe the best. But I fear there are some tough decisions to be made in the future.
Germany has been a great home. I really have enjoyed living here, although not always enjoyed living in Berlin. Berlin is a big city and that can be a little annoying. Germany is a free and open society in some respects, and very closed and insular in others. In Berlin, it’s not uncommon to see people sunbathing nude in the park while a group of eighteen-year-olds enjoy a beer in the beer garden with their friends. It’s strange to the American eye, but when you realize how open and ‘normal’ these things are, you come to appreciate them. But God help you if you try to mow your lawn on Sunday, or forget to have you train ticket stamped. *GASP*
Germany tends to carry a significant amount of emotional baggage. While it’s justified in one sense, I feel it’s really time to let the past become the past. While we observe the lessons of history, we need to be mindful of what the German nation has accomplished since the end of the Second World War. They have become a strong leader in Europe and are a military ally of the U.S. So, maybe we don’t always seeing eye to eye, but they’ve played an active role in the world and I think that is laudable. They have become a top tourist destination and a place known to be safe to travel in.
What I’m really getting at is that there is a preoccupation with Americans about WWII and I think it is borderline tasteless. Give Germany a break, that was a long time ago. Don’t forget the past, but don’t let it unjustly rule the future.
I don’t know when we will get back to Europe. But I suspect that we will be back sooner than I think. Now that the mystery of exploring Europe is gone, I really expect we will be visiting again and again. I highly encourage you to get out and see all it has to offer.
-Your Humble Servant, Bryan the Writer
P.S. When we arrived in Germany, in 2013, my kids complained at a restaurant, “But we can’t read the menu! It’s all in German.” In 2015, we traveled Italy. None of us speaks Italian; however, not one of them complained. They just figured it out based on context clues and photos. Even if they didn’t get exactly what they wanted, they ate it and enjoyed it. They have gone from being “the ugly American travelers”, to being fully functional citizens of the world. I’m proud of that fact. I now know the kids, anywhere and anytime, can function. And that, as a parent, is really what it’s all about.